Zacharias Pieri, PhD, delves into Boko Haram’s origin and motivations.

USF Sarasota-Manatee professor examines rise of terrorist group Boko Haram in new book

By: Rich Shopes

Posted: September 17, 2019

zacharias pieri usf usfsm

    Dr. Zacharias Pieri

SARASOTA, Fla. (Sept. 17, 2019) – Zacharias Pieri, PhD, examines violent jihadists Boko Haram and the factors that propelled the group to terrorize Nigeria and neighboring countries during the past 10 years in his new book, “Boko Haram and the Drivers of Islamist Violence” (Routledge Focus).

Poring over hundreds of interviews, statements and sermons by Boko Haram leaders, archival records and original source material, Pieri, an assistant professor at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, constructs a meticulous assessment of the group’s rise and turn toward violent extremism in 2009.

“The main thing I found is that despite what some have said about Boko Haram as being disorganized or even unhinged, in reality its leadership has been very good at manipulating Islamic beliefs in the region in order to legitimize its activities,” he said.

Entrenched in the country’s rural, northeastern region and affiliated with the extremist group Islamic State since 2015, Boko Haram’s emergence is intertwined with pivotal moments in Nigerian history, including a caliphate in 1804 touted as an alternative to Nigeria’s current government and, more recently, the summary execution of founding leader Mohammed Yusuf in 2009, which spurred the current spate of jihadist violence.

The book examines events since then, including a 2010 prison break, how Boko Haram’s decision to align with ISIS amplified its presence, and why the kidnapping of 276 Chibok schoolgirls in April 2014 was motivated both by ideology and strategy.

Overall, he said, the group’s aim is to dismantle the Nigerian government and institute a radical Islamic form of rule that existed prior to 1900 when the country was administered by the British.

“In its early stages, Boko Haram was very good at winning the war on propaganda,” Pieri said. “Their message was directed at government corruption and the extra-judicial killing of Mohammed Yusuf by police forces. Once they stated becoming violent and attacking people indiscriminately, their message wasn’t as well-received and it led to a fracturing of support.”

An expert in extremist movements, Pieri has advised the United Kingdom’s Foreign Office and Ministry of Defence, as well as the U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

His book will be of interest to policy makers as well as scholars of terrorism and political violence, African politics, war and conflict studies, and security studies in general. The 124-page publication came out in July. Pieri spent six years researching and writing the manuscript.

Unable to question members of the clandestine organization directly, he constructed a massive database of members’ statements, interviews, communiqués, pamphlets and sermons and examined the language and narratives used to explore their motivations and detail the group’s religious and historical foundations.

His research included a month-long stay in Nigeria to retrieve original source material, which made him uneasy at times, particularly at government checkpoints, “given sensitivities in the region.”

Begun as a social justice effort opposing government corruption, Boko Haram transformed into a violent jihadist movement that has killed tens of thousands and displaced 2.3 million from their homes since the start of the insurgency. Millions more suffer persistent food insecurities. At one point, the Global Terrorism Index labeled Boko Haram as the world’s deadliest terrorist organization.

Among its aims, Pieri said, is to erase Christianity from the landscape by destroying churches and Christian schools and communities. Girls and women are either slaughtered or consigned to re-education and sexual enslavement. The organization’s rise not only fractured Nigeria, but has also brought violence to neighboring Niger, Chad and Cameroon.

The group splintered in 2016 when some fighters encouraged an expansion of attacks to Nigeria’s broader population.

“The Boko Haram movement is rooted in historical and religious context,” Pieri said. “They’re not some random terror group. They are continuing in the fashion of violent jihadist groups that came before them, and they are learning from them.”

For more about USF Sarasota-Manatee, visit usfsm.edu.

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